NEW YORK – With the White House’s announcement Tuesday of a spring visit by President Barack Obama to Israel, speculation has swirled on the exact purpose of such a visit.
There is no scarcity of issues an American president could want to discuss with Israeli leaders – from chaos in Syria and the broader region to the Iranian nuclear program to negotiations with the Palestinians to the bilateral relations of the two countries.
Yet the confused responses to the announcement Tuesday suggested none of those reasons were compelling enough to explain a sitting president’s decision to go.
“Mr. Obama hopes to demonstrate support for the Jewish state despite doubts among some of its backers,” explains the New York Times, clarifying that the visit is “not to be seen as an ambitious effort to revive a stalled peace process.”
The Washington Post apparently disagrees, insisting the visit is intended “to make an early second-term push for peace negotiations.”
Some, like J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami, were hopeful it was the latter.
“With Secretary of State John Kerry committed to making a serious effort to settle the conflict and the prospect of a new, centrist Israeli government prepared to make a fresh start, this trip could be an important historic moment. It’s important that this be a very substantive, rather than a ceremonial visit,” he said in a statement.
Yet a statement from the National Jewish Democratic Council, Obama’s loudest election-time supporters in the Jewish community, touched on the same issues –- Kerry’s visit, a new Israeli government -– sans any mention of a peace process.
“Newly-confirmed Secretary of State John Kerry will also be visiting Israel in the coming weeks and we commend both the President and the Secretary for placing Israel and its security needs at the top of the Administration’s foreign policy agenda for President Obama’s second term,” NJDC chair Marc Stanley said.
White House spokesman Jay Carney, in announcing the visit, also failed to mention the peace process as a reason for going.
“The start of the president’s second term and the formation of a new Israeli government offer the opportunity to reaffirm the deep and enduring bonds between the United States and Israel,” he told reporters. He added that it would give the president the chance to discuss “the way forward on a broad range of issues of mutual concern” with Israeli leaders.
The only issues he named specifically: “Iran and Syria.”
Malcolm Hoenlein, one of American Jewry’s most veteran and savvy observers of Washington politics, suggested the administration would use the trip to “at least explore” possibilities for renewed peace talks.
“The purpose is clearly to push the peace process. And Kerry has indicated it will be a priority for him. The question is, will [Obama] come with a specific proposal?”
But a source close to the administration told The Times of Israel Tuesday that “we really don’t know” the rationale behind the trip.
“It’s obvious that at the moment there’s no immediate public reason to go. If [Obama] was going for the peace process, why would he go now?” the source, who asked to remain anonymous, admitted.
The White House will find a reason –- a policy proposal or agreement -– to justify the visit, the source said, but suggested the visit was likely not intended to achieve a major policy breakthrough.
“I’d find it hard to believe he’d agree to go if there wasn’t something to show for it. I’ve got to believe he’s got to have something to talk about. There’s got to be some policy.”
As pundits scratch their heads, it may be worth recalling the most prosaic reason Obama might be making the trip: because he said he would.
During the election campaign of 2012, while Republicans worked to depict him as anti-Israel, the president’s aides promised he would visit the Jewish state if reelected. Former deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East Colin Kahl told reporters in June 2012 that “we can expect [Obama] to visit Israel in a second term should he be elected.”
The promise was doubly significant after Obama was criticized for failing to visit Israel on his first trip to the region in June 2009 when he delivered his famous “Cairo speech” to the Muslim world.
Obama’s attempt to fulfill that promise to his many pro-Israel supporters (and donors) may be driving him to a visit that carries with it little potential benefit and is fraught with political traps.
If Obama will, as announced, visit the West Bank during the trip, he may have to contend with a reception in Ramallah constructed in such a way as to force him to implicitly acknowledge Palestinian statehood. What will the American president say on a podium festooned with a “State of Palestine” banner and – a likely scenario – a map of Palestine in which Israel does not exist?
If they haven’t yet realized the potential pitfalls, Obama’s Middle East advisors soon will, and their impending frustration will be understandable. Obama faced withering criticism in the Jewish community for failing to visit Israel in 2009. Now that he’s announced a visit, many are asking, “What for?”
Though little of substance is likely to come of such a visit, it will nevertheless be recognized in Israel for what it is: a complex gesture of support for the US-Israel relationship. Some are understandably expecting fireworks when an invigorated, reelected president visits a stubborn, thankless region, perhaps on the theory that an unstoppable force is about to meet an immovable object. But Obama is more likely to adopt a cautious, “do-no-harm” approach.
He promised he would visit. He didn’t promise he would like it.